Native Plant Nursery Saves Biodiversity on Campus

March 9, 2016

~ By Erin Chapman, Class of 2017

The fall weather felt pleasant as I hiked the trails in Matoaka woods, scrutinizing the leaves at the tops of oak trees through my binoculars and using a field guide to identify tree species. My mission was to find a scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, and then collect as many of its acorns as I could fit into my bag. I wasn’t hoarding for my winter food supply – I was saving the tree biodiversity on campus.


I work on the Native Plant Nursery project (NPN) through the EcoAmbassador internship. The EcoAmbassador internship is a program operated by the Committee on Sustainability where students can apply to multiple on-campus sustainability internships and receive class credits for their work. I compare this experience to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. EcoAmbassadors are Planeteers and Calandra Lake, the EcoAmbassador coordinator, is Captain Planet.

My project is an initiative to restore declining native plant populations on the William & Mary campus. This is both for educational and conservation purposes. The educational reason is to replace species important to biology and environmental science courses that were lost due to ongoing campus construction and development. The conservation purpose is to support landscape efforts by providing native plants which require less maintenance to thrive compared to non-native plants, and that support native animal populations.  

The targeted species are:

  • Decumaria barbara (climbing hydrangea)
  • Ulmus alata (winged elm)
  • Quercus prinus (chestnut oak)
  • Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
  • Quercus stellata (post oak)
  • Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak)
  • Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak)
  • Viburnum nudum (possumhaw)
  • Oxydendrum arboretum (sourwood)

 Field work is essential for this project – especially during the fall season when I was out competing with squirrels for acorns. The seeds and acorns collected are used to grow seedlings during late autumn. It’s the EcoAmbassador’s responsibility to find mature individuals of the targeted species and collect the seeds from campus property. By selecting seeds from trees nearby, rather than from trees of the same species in a different part of their natural range, our seedlings should be adapted to the local climate.

When I finally found a scarlet oak deep in the College Woods, I collected 97 of its acorns, using an acorn identification guide just to be certain. Acorns with holes weren’t selected, because holes indicate invasion by parasitic insect larvae, such as weevils.

I brought my sizable collection to the potting room in the green house where I performed a float test. This test separates the germinated acorns from the insect damaged and non-germinated acorns. All acorns are placed in a container of water for 24 hours. The ones that sink are viable and kept; the ones that float are discarded. All but four acorns passed the float test.

Scarlet oak is in the red oak family, a family comprised of dormant oak species, and therefore needs a cooling period in order to grow. This cooling period would be winter naturally, but in the NPN it is a refrigerator. Acorns from the red oak family are placed in the fridge in a plastic container filled with soaked peat moss for at least three months. It is vitally important to keep acorns (from all oak families) moist as it is imperative to their timely germination.


When I took the acorns out of the fridge a month ago, I was ecstatic to see the cracked acorn shells with green seed coat peeking through. My advisors (Patty Jackson/Greenhouse Manager and Beth Chambers/Herbarium Curator) and I set up two seed flats for our acorns and put them under grow lights. Most of them now have shoots – a few even have leaves! Soon, they will be transferred to their own individual tree pots.

Currently, the NPN has almost 100 tree seedlings growing at the nursery behind the law school. Once these seedlings reach a self-sustaining size where they no longer require protection against predation, they will eventually be landscaped onto campus property and carry the genetics of their ancestors into the future- hopefully, without any need for helping hands. Looking at the sprouts extending from my scarlet oak acorns, I remember Captain Planet’s words, “The power is yours.”

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